Days after the massacre at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999, Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput — two years into his tenure — joined a friend at a movie theater, trying to understand the buzz surrounding The Matrix.
The archbishop left deeply troubled, gripped by the sci-fi epic’s blurring of the line between life and death, between reality and a digital, alternative reality.
A week after another funeral for a young Catholic who died at Columbine, the archbishop was summoned to testify before a U.S. Senate hearing on a loaded topic: “Marketing Violence to Children.”
Archbishop Chaput was not well-known at that time. This was before he was selected to serve on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, before he started speaking out on national issues, before a public clash with the New York Times, before he wrote a best seller, Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life.
Now, the 66-year-old Native American has been named as the 13th shepherd of Philadelphia, an archdiocese of about 1.5 million Catholics.
As someone who has known Archbishop Cha-put since the mid-1980s, when he was a pastor and campus minister, I’m convinced that anyone who wants to understand this Capuchin Franciscan friar’s priorities should start with Columbine.
In that early Washington visit, Archbishop Chaput told the senators it would be simplistic to blame one movie, or Hollywood, or corporate entertainment giants, for what happened at Columbine. At the same time, it would be naive to ignore the power of popular culture.
“The reasonable person understands that what we eat, drink, and breathe will make us healthy or sick. In like manner, what we hear and what we see lifts us up — or drags us down. It forms us inside,” Archbishop Chaput explained.
The day he saw The Matrix, he noted, the “theater was filled with teenagers. One scene left me completely stunned: The heroes wear trench coats, and in a violent, elegant, slow-motion bloodbath, they cut down about a dozen people with their guns. It occurred to me that Mr. [Eric] Harris and Mr. [Dylan] Klebold may have seen that film. If so, it certainly didn’t deter them.”
Critics were not amused, especially when the archbishop linked this bloodshed — real and imaginary — to other hot-button issues on both the cultural left and right in this country.
“The problem of violence isn’t out there in bad music and bloody films. The real problem is in here, in us, and it won’t be fixed by V-chips,” he said. “We’ve created a culture that markets violence in dozens of different ways, seven days a week. …
“When we glorify and multiply guns, why are we shocked when kids use them?” Archbishop Chaput asked. “When we answer murder with more violence in the death penalty, we put the state’s seal of approval on revenge. When the most dangerous place in the country is a mother’s womb, and the unborn child can have his or her head crushed in an abortion, even in the process of being born — the body language of that message is that life isn’t sacred and may not be worth much at all.”